Women's Groups Divided in Push for Post-Coup Rights

Protesters call for 50:50 ratio of women in all government bodies, Bangkok, 8 March 2015.

BANGKOK — Women's rights advocates took to the streets in Bangkok yesterday to mark International Women's day, advocating for different approaches to promoting gender equality under the military regime that seized power from an elected government in May last year.

The two rallies were held separately around Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Although the gatherings violated the military junta’s ban on protests, security officers did not interfere with the demonstrations. 

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Protesters call for 50:50 ratio of women in all government bodies, Bangkok, 8 March 2015.

The first rally, which consisted of around 1,000 demonstrators, took place in the morning and was organized by the Women Workers’ Unity Group and state enterprise unions. United under the goal of achieving a "50:50 Ratio in the Constitution," the group urged the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) to include a clause requiring women to make up half of all government bodies. 

"All political structures, both in national and local levels, independent agencies, and state committees must feature a 50:50 ratio of men and women," the group said in a statement released to the media.

The rally came a week after Thicha na Nakhon, a well-known women’s rights advocate, resigned from the CDC after her calls for establishing a quota of female representation in parliament were rejected. Thicha also resigned from the junta-appointed National Reform Council as a protest. 

Arunee Srito, chairperson of the Women Workers’ Unity Group, said the 50-50 ratio is an effort to ensure that the composition of state organizations reflects the demographics of the population, which is around 50 percent women. 

"The case of the resignation of Thicha reflects that several voices of women alone cannot be successful, because men still don't open their minds and accept them, so it is very hard for women to participate in high-level decision making," Arunee said. "Although Thicha has resigned from her position, women’s networks across the country are hoping that the CDC will adopt her proposal about the ratio."

The group's statement also demanded the military government "implement special measures" to advance gender equality, end discrimination, and reduce violence and crimes targeting women, such as human trafficking and domestic abuse. The new charter "must not be inferior to the 1997 and 2007 Constitutions in the provision that protects the rights and liberty of all people," the statement read. 

The military junta dissolved the 2007 Constitution after staging a coup against the former government on 22 May 2014. The CDC was then appointed to draft a new constitution, which will be Thailand's 20th since democracy was established in 1932. The new charter is expected to be finished by September this year.

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The second group of women's rights activists organized a mock election by Democracy Monument in Bangkok, 8 March 2015.

Yesterday's second rally, attended by several dozen activists, took a more confrontational approach to the military coup and its new charter. The group's leaders said they refused to cooperate with the post-coup government, demanding that democratic rule be restored "immediately."

In a statement read to the press, the activists called for the repeal of the martial law, immediate elections, a constitutional clause requiring the Prime Minister and MPs be elected, the abolition of lese majeste law, immediate release of all political prisoners, and the legalization of abortions. 

"Although women's rights [in Thailand] have improved from the past, the 2014 coup has plunged the rights of men and women into an abyss," the group’s statement read. "The Thai elite have not only ignored important problems of women, such as by refusing to pass a law that requires workplaces to have childcare centers, but the Thai elite also insulted the people's rights to govern their own future by staging a military coup."

Vipa Daomanee, one of the protest’s organizers, told reporters that women have been fighting and dying for democracy in Thailand for decades. She urged women's rights groups to focus on returning democracy instead of a establishing a quota in political institutions.

"I insist that the right way to fight for women’s rights is not about creating more space for women in Parliament and other political spheres, but about demanding fairness and calling for democracy alongside men," said Vipha, who also chaired a committee that collects evidence about the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. 

Sukanya Prueksakasemsuk, a labor activist and the wife of a prominent lese majeste convict, called attention to female political prisoners who have denied bail even though they have not been charged with violent crimes. 

"Their only wrongdoing was expressing their opinoion," said Sukanya, whose husband, former magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, is serving an 11-year jail term at Bangkok Remand Prison on charges of lese majeste (insulting the monarchy). 

The latest female political prisoner in Thailand is Porntip Mankong, 26, who was found guilty of lese majeste in February and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. 

"The overall situation of political prisoners in the present time is very serious, especially the cases of lese majeste," Sukanya said yesterday. "Expressing opinions should be basic rights of each individual, as long as there is no incitement of violence. Expressing opinions should not be punished by criminal laws or jail terms." 

The pro-democracy activists also staged a mock election before dispersing peacefully.

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